It takes two to tandem – a love story

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The cycling experience which has changed our lives began after a group of us – the Intrepids as we now call ourselves, rode the Otago Rail Trail in 2004. Despite minimal ‘training’ – 5 minutes a day on the exercycle perched on the third floor of our town house with its view over Onehunga towards the airport and not having any cycling specific gear, it was enormous fun.

We had had some experience on bikes over the course of our lives. From the age of 3 I had a cute red tricycle which I would ride around the neighbourhood. The only picture I have is of my trike perched on top of the trailer when the family moved house when I was 4. I was so proud of it, absolutely relishing the independence it offered. I remember having a donger-knocker stick strategically placed at the base of the nearest pole-mounted fire alarm in case it was needed to break the glass.

I remember learning to ride a two wheeler on my sister’s huge upright black model with the curved bar and wicker basket, on Crescent Road, as she followed on behind holding the carrier. I was unaware that at some stage she let go and I disappeared down the road – on my own!  Never looked back really!

We both rode bikes to school, Greg on the country roads of West Auckland to Huapai School and then to school and university in Christchurch, and from the age of 8, I rode to Cornwall Park School, Remuera Intermediate and then along the busy battling-the-buses Manukau Road to Epsom Girls’ Grammar School. I had saved up my pocket money to buy my own bike one Saturday morning after scanning the For Sale advertisements in the New Zealand Herald, a pale blue three gear model. I still have an elbow shaped scar on my left knee when I fell off it riding around the front garden one Christmas Day. When I look at the busyness of Manukau Road these days, I am amazed that in all the years of running the gauntlet of the green Auckland Transport Board buses and experiencing their turning into the kerb or turning out again in front of me, that I was never knocked off. I do remember battling head winds at times, of having my brand new white Panama hat purchased specially to pass uniform inspection on swimming sports day, being blown off and flattened by a car running it over, of attaching my hockey stick to the front fork, of arriving at my 8am piano lesson in mid-winter with frozen fingers and occasionally avoiding being drenched by catching the bus to school. In my last year at school, I used any excuse to drive the recently acquired white mini, abandoning my trusty steed.

Then the ‘push’ bike was abandoned again in favour of a cute flower-emblazoned red and cream Honda 50 also saved up for and purchased with my nurse-aide earnings from the local surgical hospital, but the motorcycling era is another story!

Our next cycling experience was when we lived as a young family in Kathmandu, Nepal.  Bikes were our only mode of transport. Greg carried our daughter, Nicki to the British Primary School on the carrier of his blue very basic Indian-made Hero bike and I rode with our son Simon. Unfortunately he sustained a nasty friction burn on his left ankle when his foot caught in my back wheel.  Another cycling injury!  The day Rachel, our youngest was born, I cycled on my red Hero bike, probably looking quite comical, down the hill as usual to language school. That night I went into labour – I’m not sure whether the two things were connected! We had arrived a family of four, and became a family of five and getting around Kathmandu on two bikes.

Over the years we did very little cycling, wobbling around on hired tandems on holiday a couple of times, but it was after my sister Kathryn who extolled the virtues of riding the Otago Rail Trail early in its existence, and we decided to be a little adventurous and have a go, that we found ourselves becoming hooked.

Shortly afterwards, Greg purchased his first road bike and joined the Going team, a group of MAMILS getting up at an ungodly but quiet-on-the-road hour on a Sunday morning and attacking the hills and roads around Auckland. I was quite happy to sleep in and listen to Chris Laidlaw on National Radio, but there were signs that I was becoming a cycling grace widow. Greg’s endorphins were clearly circulating when he came home, hot, sometimes wet but always exhilarated. He would regale me with stories of being the first to reach the top of Birdwood or Roberta, but also of the injuries sustained by the latest cycling casualty. Then there were the events and cycling weekends away – Northland and East Cape which were enjoyable, but I was not a natural ‘wife’ with the expectations that I would be a driver and sandwich maker and I began to feel I was missing out on something.

One day on a whim, I was browsing the internet and came upon an advertisement for a tandem. What followed saw us purchasing an Avanti tandem from Marc at Avanti in Mt Eden.  He and Debbie had lost their tandem-riding nerve and were happy, it seems, to see the back of it. So now having made a commitment by shelling out several thousands of dollars, it meant we had to learn to ride it and I had to get fit…..at age 57.

This meant my learning to ‘clip in’ which began as being quite counter intuitive, but also ceding all responsibility for managing the bike to the ‘captain’. This was made easier with my being a novice on the improbably thin tyres and curvy handlebars of a road bike. We had to learn to coordinate our movements especially setting off and stopping without capsizing. My role was to be the ‘stoker’, the power behind the throne. The one time I tried being the captain, we lasted 100 metres! I will always remember the first time we rode 50km around the back roads of Huapai – a significant milestone at the time. Then the first time we joined the Going team on a Sunday morning…..causing somewhat of a stir among the boys, and actually keeping up with the group, the first time we won a Sunday morning sprint, the first time we did a road event, in 2008, 50 km to and from Pukekohe via Waiuku, coming home with a silver medal – I won’t say how many tandems there were competing that year! Then there was the first time I observed a Hot Cycles tandem sprinting to the finish of the 100km Rotorua to Taupo event thinking that looked a blast, and the next year the first of six consecutive years, when we rode the event ourselves, and the only time we rode around Lake Taupo.

100K Rotorua to Taupo

There were events though when I do remember staring at the odo and counting the kms until yet another ordeal is over. I have forgotten the back ache which sets in at 60 kms, the ‘bonking’ (cycling terminology for hitting the wall) at 120km while riding around Taupo and fortunately being rejuvenated by a gooey caffeine glucose substance, which enabled us to soar up Hatepe Hill and finish the race strongly.

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We now have a flash Cannondale replacement for the Avanti. We have fallen off only once, fortunately without injury, a tribute to the tandem’s twice-the-weight-of-a-normal-bike’s stability, when a chap coming the other way along the North-western cycle way chose to clip the fence and fall off in front of us, and there was the time when at the top of a hill on Woodcock’s Road, my shoe would not clip out when we stopped, and we toppled. The tandem flies downhill and on the flat, but is hard yakka on hills and we are always last up, the physics of which has yet to be explained to us. We have participated in a series of designated tandem events along with other tandem riding nutters. We attract considerable attention whenever we venture out, the more so since we acquired some very cool matching Cat in the Hat cycle jerseys. Our riding gear is always coordinated. We often hear bystanders yell, “She’s not pedalling” as we pass.  It was funny the first time! The speed freak in me loves that at times we ride the tandem quite fast – maximum speed 78kph once coming down from the Waitakeres.

There have been so many regular rides, events, many certificates, three medals and SO much fun. The fact that we are still enjoying riding the tandem after 9 years with few cross words, says quite a bit about our relationship – married for 45 years, sharing birthdays, being best friends, laughing at each other’s jokes, our mutual provocativeness, and my being happy to be told what to do………..not! Our kids worry. Others to whom we have recommended tandem riding have almost invariably said that their relationships would never survive it.

Sunday 26 February – Yangon to Singapore

pictures-yangon-myanmar[1]We lost a bunch of keys including the house key, probably at Panda, so we are hoping the planted key is in situ when we get home at midnight. We will spend Rachel’s birthday en route.

We asked the airport bound taxi driver to call in to Panda on the way but there was no sign of the keys. Bugger!

Nothing untoward happened on our trip home. All connections worked. The luggage checked in at Yangon Airport arrived in Auckland OK. The airport hotel at Changi was great. The 9 1/2 hour trip from Singapore was more of a nightmare than usual because it was daytime and not appropriate for doping. And I couldn’t hear the audio adequately to be able to enjoy the movies.

The biosecurity man who inspected my riding sandals advised me that they’d reached the end of their life, but I’m not sure – they may live to do another cycling holiday, but they were not a biosecurity risk, although they did take a battering, like the bike because of the roads. The planted key was in situ. The Herald and mail were not delivered and restarted when requested. The freezer was still working, although several power points didn’t because of the fuse being turned off when Rachel encountered problems with the spa bath. No messages on the answer phone. In short, no disasters awaited us and we hit he sack at about 2.30. I couldn’t sleep so I got up at 3 am and hung two loads of washing out before falling asleep on Myanmar time. Greg had to go to work for Cornerstone the next morning and so the Myanmar adventure was officially over!

Saturday 25 February – Yangon

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Today was a bonus day, an extra day in Yangon because we miscalculated which was the last day of the cycling trip and made our return to NZ flights accordingly. However Greg has to go down to clendon the day we get home at midnight so getting some rest before the trip home makes sense. So we had a nice relaxing day reading including the New York Times and made a foray out to the Scott market, a huge outfit with lots of stalls and some proper shops selling material for lungis and wraparound skirts, jandals, souvenirs, beads, gems, sunglasses etc, and patronised by both tourists and locals, in the afternoon via taxi. We ate samosas, spring rolls and chick pea patties at the side of the road taking in the ambience of this chaotic city and when we ran out of ideas taxied home. Loperamide has helped my slightly dicky bowel today.

Friday 24 February – Bagan to Yangon

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It was a long and tiring day.

Flew with one of the several local airlines after farewelling Mr Winn and Jaw.

We were picked up by Myat, the Yangon based guide and visited an enormous reclining Buddha pagoda as the day got hotter. Fortunately our van was air-conditioned.

After lunch we took a crowded local train into the outer Yangon suburbs – we noted more of the piles of rubbish we have seen everywhere – dominated by plastic bags, and similar villages we have seen in the more rural areas cultivating crops which are then taken to Yangon markets. It’s hard to say if people are poor or unhappy or is it that their way of life is different from ours? Certainly life expectancy is shorter than ours at about 65 and there isn’t universal access to education and healthcare. But exposure to the way the Myanmar population live, raises lots of questions.

What was most interesting was observing normal Yangon people and their goods on the train, going about their normal lives – families, pedlars of sweet corn, bottles of water, watermelon and quails’ eggs getting on and off the trains. Goods are sometimes carried on donuts on their heads.

It took ages to get across town in the gridlock of Friday night rush hour – so much more development is pending, that you shudder to think of traffic in 2 or 5 years – and we had to stop at a loo on the way because of the state of Carol and Paul’s guts. We had only a brief opportunity for me to don a long skirt, before we ventured out, just Greg and me and the guide, to Shwedagon the huge, elaborate and impressive gold Buddhist temple, mecca for the pious and Yangon landmark. Incredible really when you observe the reality of people’s lives next door!

Had said good-bye to Jessica, and were pleased to hit the sack in this flashest of flash hotels designed with pagoda themes, exhausted after a light dinner.

Thursday 23 February – Bagan

Today was a temple crawl by bike – 5 temples each with its own story of past patricide, fratricide  and general mayhem that has occurred over many centuries to gain or retain power and the temples were built to ensure each despot was immortalised in history. The area is amazing, the multitude of brick pagodas being much more attractive than the ones we have seen elsewhere. Saw plenty of merchandisers employing the usual sales techniques, around these touristy areas and lots of westerners on motorcycles or ‘e bikes.’ Another Pokhara?

Temperatures were expected to reach 37 today – it felt like it and we were happy to have a dip and laze around the resort’s swimming pool after lunch trying to guess what nationalities belonged to the assortment of bodies we observed. Some westerners have no shame, exposing views of themselves which they shouldn’t.

We said farewell to the faithful steeds as they are readied for the next group of suckers intrepid cyclists!
We feel pleased that none of us suffered any bike mishaps although Jess fell over on a run!

As sunset approached, we were picked up and ferried to one of the temples where all tourists congregate to view the spectacular sunsets. The is temple is chosen because there is plenty of room for the masses at various levels. Judging by its popularity it must be mentioned in Lonely Planet as a ‘must-do in Bagan’. And it was indeed spectacular if hazy, but it took ages after sunset for the assembled masses to descend the narrow and steep stairway – not for those afraid of heights or narrow spaces.

At the last supper with Mr Winn and Jaw, we handed over the generous, but expected tip.

 

 

Wednesday 22 February – Mt Popa to Bagan

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When someone says “it’s all down hill from here” you never believe them, but occasionally it is true!

Today’s 53 km ride was said to be just that and so it was apart from 10 km or so in the middle which was easy undulating, snaking around the mountain and through the small villages we are becoming familiar with. It was also nice and cool to begin with as we headed down from the hills and the ride a real blast. We passed a place which makes products from the Totty tree: palm sugar, a light beer, a spirit, syrup, leaves for thatching, trunks for construction and we watched a chap shinny up the tree on a ladder attached to the trunk and place pots which catch the sap. At the same place we observed a cow attached to a grinder going round and round in circles to produce peanut oil. We sampled some yummy sweet products.

But it got hotter and hotter and we were pleased to reach the little restaurant for lunch. We visited a lacquered goods factory on the way to our hotel on the banks of the Irrawaddy river. The lacquered products have a skeleton of bamboo, are covered in lacquer from a tree confined to this area of Myanmar, dried several times and then decorated with designs and mosaics made from e.g. gold, egg shell and then polished. We have some placemats made from this process which are probably from here. Greg was OK again and managed the whole ride despite feeling not quite 100% but eating again at least. The many temples we passed are made of red brick -a nice change from the gold or paint, often deteriorating, we have seen elsewhere.

We are on the last lap of our trip and will be happy to say goodbye to the Trek mountain bikes which have taken quite a hammering on these roads. It is excellent to easily and quickly be able to change a wheel with a punctured tyre with a spare from the van as happened to me at the lacquer factory – shades of Tour de France!

Lazed around all afternoon, watched the sun set across the river sipping on smoothies, dined and were happy to hit the sack after a hot and tiring day.

We often tune into the BBC or CNN but are reminded of our disappointment in the past with their shameless and endless self promotion seemingly taking up as much time as the programmes themselves. Still NZ has featured – one of the cricketers has been bought by the ICL, NZ beat SA in a ODI due to Ross Taylor’s record and that’s about all.

Monday 20 February – Mandalay to Mt Popa

This 70 km ride began after a drive to the Irrawaddy where we and bikes were transported across the river by boat to Ava a previous capital with visible remnants of walls and temples. Lots of horse drawn vehicles were waiting for tourists to come the way we came and go across the river – one of the must do experiences of Mandalay we are told!

For the first 20 km we rode through villages but then the remainder of the ride was through desert like landscape – dry, scrappy vegetation, no shade, few villages, a large new industrial complex waiting to happen in the middle of nowhere, the Myanmar equivalent of Think Big perhaps, palm trees yielding palm sugar, cotton, tobacco, beans, and millet, and very hot, around 35 degrees. I flagged the ride at this stage because of the heat and rode in comfort in the air-conditioned van but Greg pushed himself and rode the whole distance, enjoying the challenge but feeling absolutely stuffed at the end. A highlight for me was the delicious ++ coconut doughnuts at the morning tea stop.

We transferred to van for a 100 km drive to Mt Popa Resort going through lots of road works and laborious sealing of the roads which were in poor repair. The resort is high on the side of a hill, the decor predominantly teak, with infinity pool, restaurant and some luxurious looking villas, for the rich and famous I suspect, although our unit was looking somewhat tired.

Myanmar is not a beautiful country but the way of life and the people and history are interesting. There is also a sameness about the food wherever we have been.